Vice-chancellors launch more ‘active’ university body

Vice-chancellors have launched a new ‘activist’ association called Universities South Africa, which will represent the interests of the university sub-sector of higher education and will speak for the country’s 26 public universities rather than their leaders.

One of its goals is to strengthen and enhance partnerships with local, regional and global higher education and related organisations.

The new body was launched in Johannesburg on 22 July, at a function that also celebrated the 10th anniversary of its predecessor, Higher Education South Africa or HESA.

Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and first chair of Universities South Africa, said the change process began two years ago, when former HESA CEO Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele called on vice-chancellors to reflect on whether HESA was pursuing its founding aims, and on its positioning in the higher education landscape.

During subsequent conversations, the HESA board realised that there was a problem with the organisation’s name – it represented the leaders of public universities in a far broader higher education system that also comprises technical and vocational colleges, adult learning centres, private learning institutions, sector education and training authorities and regulatory bodies.

“The new name Universities South Africa was extensively debated and ultimately accepted as the preferred choice,” said Habib, and it resonated with the current naming convention in other countries – Universities Australia, Universities UK and so on.

“The name clarifies that our association represents the interests of the public university sector, a sub-sector within the broad higher education sector. The name reinforces that we are a representative association of universities, not of vice-chancellors.”

The new body’s goals and objectives are outlined in a Strategic Framework for Universities South Africa, 2015-2019.

New-look representation

Going forward, said Habib, Universities South Africa would be “more consultative and inclusive of the variety of interests and constituencies within the university sector and beyond” in order to develop consensus around issues.

There would be “more activism, bigger action orientation, stronger lobbying and innovative engagements in dealing with the sector’s challenges”.

These were, among others: student access and success; the decline in state funding; building the next generation of academics; broad transformation, in particular in staffing and student profiles; the ability to contribute to development imperatives; a differentiated university sector; a fluid policy and operating environment for universities; and high quality research, teaching and learning.

Universities South Africa, said Habib, would “engage more vigorously with institutional collaborators and broader society on issues of transparency, accountability and responsiveness”.

What the minister said

Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande welcomed the approach of Universities South Africa, which he said “signals a renewed and revitalised intention to work in partnership and collaboration with government and other higher education role-players”.

He commended the priority areas identified by the strategic framework, including supporting government to develop and implement a National Plan for Higher Education.

Creating a higher education-government forum would build on earlier agreements to establish effective communication, and build trust and commitment. A Higher Education Summit to be held in October was a concrete example, and could become an annual forum event.

Other priority areas were to provide strategic advice and support to government on developing and implementing a differentiation policy; working with the Department of Higher Education and Training to clarify key foundational principles for the Central Application Service; and achieving adequately funded universities and a funding policy.

“Many of the priority areas involve highly contested and controversial terrain, and the involvement and good faith of a body such as Universities South Africa is absolutely essential if we are to achieve our aims,” Nzimande said.

However, there were some issues on which the framework document and HESA had been “somewhat silent”. They concerned such questions as:

“What is the role of higher education in a complex and differentiated post-school sector? What does the apex position of universities suggest should be their contribution and obligations? What do we mean by a ‘university’, in the context of what a developmental state such as South Africa aspires to be? How should this shape, if at all, our thinking in respect of universities that might be established in the future?"